How Should We Put Out Fires?

One of my favorite quotes is from the noted champion of the wilderness, John Muir (in today’s photo): “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Spoken about 100 years ago, the more we learn about our planet and our universe, the more wisdom we find in Mr. Muir’s words.

Today’s LA Daily News has an interesting piece on their editorial page. It is a solicitation for reader input onthe topic of fire fighting. I encourage you to evaluate this topic for yourself, and send your thoughts along to the Daily News.See:

http://www.dailynews.com/opinions/ci_16068478

It seems that one of the more effective means of fire suppression over the past few years has been the use of the red-colored chemicals dropped from large aircraft. The chemicals consume large amounts of oxygen, thus depriving the fire of an essential ingredient. That approach could be extremely effective; however, it has its detractors.

But environmentalists and the courts have determined that the practice should stop for environmental protection reasons. They are concerned about the effects of this chemical on natural waters. It has even been suggested that the pilots take greater care in how and where they make their drops. I’m thinking the pilots might have other things on their minds.

About 15 years ago, there was a significant fire in the watershed of Castaic Lake, consuming thousands of acres, and burning right down to the waterline of the lake. At the time, I was managing the operations of two treatment plants that had this lake as their sole source of raw water, so I was concerned about the impacts on water quality and our treatment plants.

Immediately following the fire, a committee was formed to discuss the efforts to restore the watershed. Among the committee members were folks representing several environmental groups. Some advocated no actions; fires are natural, and nature will respond in Its own way. Some advocated reseeding sensitive areas, while others urged that only native plants be used in such operations. The fire folks wanted to add some additional access roads to facilitate future fire control activities. I just wanted decent water in the lake that our plants could handle and still produce good quality drinking water for our customers.

There was clearly no consensus, and no possibility of ever arriving at consensus.

The fall fire was followed by a fairly mild winter, and the rains carried little into the lake that impacted quality. The following winter was a different story. The temporary debris basins put in place after the fire had filled up during the first winter. With no maintenance effort to clear these basins after that time, the second winter brought two years’ worth of debris — plus the huge load from the fire — into the lake. We struggled for months to contend with this radically altered water quality.

A little maintenance in the watershed would have prevented this occurrence, which impacted the water quality of millions of southern California residents. But the maintenance did not take place, largely due to the protests of environmentalists.

Which brings us back to Mr. Muir. The Sierra Club is perhaps the oldest and probably the largest environmentalist organization in the world, and it claims John Muir as its founder. I believe that they have forgotten that things are “hitched to everything else.” There are consequences — sometimes dire ones — for failure to act, or even for failure to act swiftly.

Fire suppression is a great example of this. How much environmental damage is done by not suppressing a fire? Add to that the potentially enormous human costs of life and property.

In short, I’m amazed that we are even having this discussion!

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